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Opinion

March 14, 2018

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The history of work

Throughout history, the concept of work has changed according to the structuring and restructuring of society. In the earliest period of human history, which was dominated by hunter-gatherer societies, the main task that was performed by people was hunting for food and the rest of the day was spent in leisure.

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In the Neolithic period, human settlements were established and agriculture was introduced. As a result, working in the fields and cultivating crops became a laborious job. At the same time, there was a clearly-defined division of labour whereby men worked in the fields while women engaged in domestic work. A new class of artisans also appeared to manufacture tools that were required for agricultural and domestic activities.

With the advancement of human society, new classes emerged on the horizon, especially warriors and priests. Both warriors and priests were non-productive and relied on the surplus production of society. But warriors were expected to defend the settlement against invaders and protect people and property while priests devoted their time and energy to please gods and goddesses in order to save the crops. During this period, everyone had a task that was fulfilled in the service of society. Work became a guarantee for survival.

The character of work changed when the system of slavery was introduced. These slaves were either prisoners of war or those who failed to pay debts to their feudal lords and sold themselves in exchange for it. Slaves were engaged to work in mines and also served as domestic servants. They mostly did those jobs that were not deemed suitable for other classes of society. The result was that the dignity of work was lowered because it was associated with slavery.

In Indian society, where there was no concept of slavery; it was the caste system that divided people into different professions. The four classes – priests, warriors, peasants and servants – were within the religious domain of Hindu society. However, the untouchables were outside the remit of these four classes. They were assigned the task of ensuring cleanliness and were not allowed to reside in cities. Their settlements were outside the walled cities and they were only permitted to enter the precincts of these cities to clean the streets.

However, society has refused to recognise the importance of the work that the untouchables do. They have suffered humiliation throughout history. Although Gandhi called them Harijan (children of God), a mere change of name could not change their status and they still belong to the lowest strata of society.

In slave-owning and feudal society, rulers and aristocrats used to have a large number of slaves and servants. For example, a ruler had a separate servant for everything that was integral to his daily life. These servants were in charge of the ruler’s food, drinks, weapons, horses and other animals.

The author of ‘Bazm-i-Akhar’ provides a long list of servants who attended to the last Mughal ruler and fulfilled his wishes immediately. Even though the dynasty was on the decline, the number of slaves who serve the powerless emperor increased. The aristocracy also followed a similar practice and kept a large retinue of servants to serve them day and night. As a result, work was deemed to be beneath a noble or an aristocrat’s dignity.

It is believed that some members of the ulema did not learn how to write because they considered it to be was the domain of calligraphers and scribes. Learning how to write was, therefore, below their status. Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, also had contempt for professional calligraphers and scribes. He believed that the aristocracy should enjoy leisure and avoid engaging in any form of work. In his book ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’, Karl Popper points out that while Aristotle bore hatred for such professions, he himself served as a teacher.

During the medieval period, the Turks arrived in India and brought new modes of technology that introduced new professions, including manufacturing paper and new tools for the textile industry. It raised the standard of life of the artisan classes. At the same time, the new rulers and nobility required different forms of dresses, jewellery, furniture, buildings and weapons. As a result, the artisan classes became financially sound. This upset the aristocrats and nobility whose interest was to maintain their high status and keep artisans socially subordinate to them. This tension is fully indicated in the writings of Ziauddin Barani – especially in ‘Tareekh-e-Feroz Shahi’ – who criticised the new emerging classes as worthless, mean, uncultured, rustic and rough.

When British rule was established in India, the English officers also followed the custom of employing a large number of servants for their comfort. A captain of the British Army used to have at least 15 servants at his disposal, including a cook, tailor, washerman, gardener and a syce for horses. The Vice Regal Lodge in India had 3,000 servants to ensure that it was properly maintained.

After Partition, we also inherited a ‘feudal’ culture of work whereby any form of manual labour is beneath our dignity and honour. Glimpses of this culture are still visible in rural and urban areas. Landowners have a number of servants who work for them. In the urban centres, bureaucrats and the rich consider work to be something that is below their elevated status. A society where work is not respected cannot achieve a dignified place among other nations.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.

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